Claims of harassment in Pleasant Township

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By Andrea Cordle
Southwest Editor

The assistant fire chief in Pleasant Township has resigned for what he calls continued harassment by another department employee.

Last month, Assistant Fire Chief Ron Kern gave his letter of resignation to the township trustees. According to the letter, Kern said his reason for leaving was alleged harassment by John Beard, a firefighter and union president for the Pleasant Township Fire Department.

The letter says in part, “Since the time I was hired, I have been harassed by John Beard. I have written documentation that has been shared with you (the trustees and fire chief). I have also received multiple calls that I felt were delivered in a threatening manner wanting my resignation.”

Kern alleges that Beard made threatening phone calls to him and to his other place of employment. Kern’s position as assistant fire chief was part-time. He works for another fire department full-time.

“Both you and I have been aware of people quitting because they were in fear their potential full-time employment in the field of firefighting was or would be in jeopardy,” Kern said in his resignation letter.

Kern said he told Jay Noojin, fire chief, and the township trustees about the allegations. He also told them about reportedly finding a photo of himself at the department with thumbtack holes punched all over it.

“The only response I ever hear is ‘It’s not in writing.’ At some point this school yard bullying must stop. It is not fair to employees or the taxpayers of Pleasant Township,” said Kern in the letter.

According to Beard, he is the victim of bullying, not the perpetrator. He alleged Kern was harassing him and creating a hostile work environment.

“I always did the wrong thing,” said Beard. “He was always trying to pick a fight with me.”

Beard, who has been with the department since 1986, said he believes Kern targeted him because he is the union president and has to work closely with the administration.

Beard said regarding the allegations of making threatening phone calls and poking holes in a photo, “There is no evidence of any of that. And there is no evidence because nothing
happened.”

According to township documents, in January 2013, Beard wrote a letter to Chief Noojin after being asked whether he would consider transferring to another unit where Beard would be the senior firefighter.

Beard’s response said in part, “I feel that due to the hostile work environment and harassment I’ve experienced from the chief’s office, I would prefer to remain on a unit that assistant chief Kern is not working on at Pleasant Township.”

Township documents also revealed that in August 2010, Kern gave a verbal warning to Beard for what he called threatening behavior. The document said during a meeting with the fire chief and assistant chief, Beard raised his voice, motioned with his hands to his chest and said, “Come on.”

Beard filed a grievance appeal, saying the gesture was not a threat as Kern reported. Beard said he felt he was being harassed due to Kern’s accusations.

According to Beard, Kern has made these allegations in his resignation letter as a “smoke screen” because Kern was facing potential discipline for a firehouse incident in late January.

Shortly before his resignation at the end of February, Kern admitted, in his letter, to a “meltdown” during a phone call with a family member.

Eight firefighters who were on shift with Kern wrote letters to the fire chief stating what they witnessed. According to the letters, four wrote that they did not witness anything involving Kern. Another four reported overhearing Kern on the phone expressing frustration with the job and using profanity.

In his resignation letter, Kern addressed the incident and said, “I do apologize to you and the board of trustees for my meltdown during a recent telephone conversation with a family member. I do regret that other members of the department overheard my conversation. In my defense, how much can one person take?”

According to township files, the fire lieutenant on duty at the time asked the firefighters to write down what they heard or saw and give the letters to the chief.

About a month prior to Kern’s resignation, a township employee attended a trustees’ meeting, addressed the board and said the fire department should save money and eliminate the assistant fire chief position.

Background and Internal Investigation

The Pleasant Township trustees created the assistant fire chief position in 2010. According to township chairwoman Nancy Hunter, the position was established after an investigation into firefighter misconduct.

In November 2009, Britt Investigative Services conducted an internal investigation into allegations of possible improper conduct. The investigation focused on issues within the fire station. It did not involve staff performance while out on runs.

According to Kern, when he was hired, he tried to establish parameters and a disciplinary process. He said he did not look into the investigation and its findings because he wanted to start with a clean slate and give everyone the benefit of the doubt.

Britt Investigative Services was brought on to review a reported physical altercation between Beard and another firefighter.

The investigation included a report alleging that Beard slapped another firefighter on the back of the head then put the firefighter in a “bear hug” after he retaliated.

Beard, who has also received several awards and commendations for job performance, called the incident a misunderstanding. He said he thought they were just messing around, which, according to Beard, is normal in the firehouse.

According to Beard’s personnel file, he had an official written reprimand in 2009 for verbal abuse of a firefighter. He also received a written warning in 2006 for violating work rules, where he was accused of wrestling a female firefighter to the ground and holding her down against her will.

Beard said this was a misunderstanding.

The Pleasant Township fire code says members shall not harass, intimidate or knowingly offend another firefighter purposefully or in jest.

According to Chief Noojin, if an employee has a complaint of another fire department employee, that person should file a written complaint. Then, he said, he could look into the matter.

The firefighter who allegedly had the physical confrontation with Beard did not make a formal complaint in writing. Nor did the female firefighter, which is why Beard was given a write-up with no further action, according to the Britt report. The female firefighter is no longer with the department.

The internal investigation determined that horseplay is part of everyday practice at the firehouse. The investigation also determined that the department policy – if someone does not put something in writing, it is usually not followed up on – is a problem.

The report from the investigation said, “The township has a policy, but the policy seems to be ignored or there is a lack of training and understanding of the policy.”

The report suggested that supervisors document and investigate all instances once brought to their attention whether or not the employee puts the incident in writing. It recommended a policy review for the township, including the trustees, the fire chief, unit officers and union representatives to develop a more comprehensive work place environment policy.

Township Response

The township trustees voted to accept Kern’s resignation.

“We regret his resignation,” said Hunter. “We do not take these allegations lightly.”

In his resignation letter, Kern said he met with the fire chief and township officials regarding the allegations of harassment. He said each time he heard the same response, that nothing could be proven.

“We had discussions, but he never put anything in writing,” said Noojin. “Everything is hearsay.”

According to the fire chief, if an employee provides a written complaint, he can then investigate the matter. However, in his investigation, he has to find someone willing to come forward and back up the claims, someone who witnessed the incident and is ready to put their name to it.

“I will continue to handle these matters as I currently have,” said Noojin. “It’s not what I feel; it’s what I can prove.”

Beard said now there is less tension in the firehouse.

“We are all working together again,” said Beard. “We have great guys in this department. We are like a family.”

That is one point where Kern and Beard agree.

“As a whole, the men are good firefighters,” said Kern.

The trustees have not yet discussed if they will fill the assistant fire chief position.

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